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Video games in 2016 would be unrecognizable to someone in 2006

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If you stepped away from video games for a decade, would you recognize them when you returned?

Over the weekend, I received an email from Murali Ramanujam, who hasn't played video games in earnest since 2007. Returning to the medium after nine years, he feels lost.

As he puts it:

I simply cannot understand many of the games being released nowadays. When I gamed last time, there was [the first] Assassins Creed, which was a fun single player game. It had a good story and good graphics. Then there was Counter Strike, which had no story whatsoever and people just shooting each other in various maps.

Now we have Destiny, several Tom Clancy games which I cannot tell apart, GTA Online, and so many new online games that reviewers talk about playing with friends. So in these games, is there a campaign? Can I buy these games and have fun playing by myself? Is there one component that is single player and one that is multi player?

I will answer those questions — I promise, Ramanujam — but first I want to consider the uniqueness of this dilemma.

When other hobbies drift back into our lives after an extended break, we expect to find them, fundamentally speaking, unchanged. Stamp collecting is stamp collecting. Model trains are model trains. Major League Baseball gains and loses new players and makes tweaks to the rulebook each year, but if you were a fan through childhood, lapsed for a decade as you focused on college and finding a career, then returned, you would still know how to watch, cheer, and participate.

Games have changed — dramatically

Games don't work that way. Games change — drastically. How, why, and where we play games is different today than a decade ago. And the expectations behind play have evolved, too: we are expected to have new consoles, high-definition TVs, advanced smartphones, and most importantly, a high speed internet connection.

For context, here's what's happened to video games since 2007.

In 2008, indie game developer Jonathan Blow released Braid on the Xbox 360, marking the beginning of an indie game revolution that would spread across all hardware. Thanks to the App Store, Steam, and other digital marketplaces, publishing a video game is easier than ever, so easy that multiple new games are released each day, spanning cost, genre, and style. Meticulously crafted puzzles like Blow's follow-up, The Witness, released this year, live alongside countless glitchy simulators and rushed survival games that hope to make quick money off fads and trends.

A small iPhone game called Angry Birds was released in 2009. Within a year, it became the biggest video game on the planet. From its seed, an endless crop of mobile games has blossomed, expanding the reach of video games by the hundreds of millions. Free-to-play games, which cost nothing up front but accumulate money from many small transactions down the line, became synonymous with vampiric business practices. By 2014, mobile studios like SuperCell were making over $5 million in revenue a day of a game that's marketed as free.

Also in 2009, Riot Games released League of Legends, which alongside Dota 2, has shaped e-sports into a billion dollar industry. Across the globe, international competitions sell out sports arenas. Last year, The International, the largest competition for Dota 2, offered an $18 million prize pool, much of it raised by the game's fans.

In 2011, Markus Persson released Minecraft, a game that merges open world adventures with LEGO-like engineering. The various versions have cumulatively sold over 70 million copies. Instead of sequels, Minecraft has grown with free updates, changing how developers consider the lifespan of a video game franchise. Persson sold the game and his company to Microsoft for $2.5 billion. Minecraft, a game that is available on practically every platform that can run a video game, serves as the playbook in Microsoft's plan to blur the lines between gaming on Xbox, Windows 10, and mobile devices.

Free-to-play is a thing now

Minecraft is scheduled for release on both augmented and virtual reality headsets — a former industry fantasy. Virtual reality headsets will go on sale for hundreds of dollars this month, and people will buy them, along with the expensive PCs it takes to power them.

In the nearly a decade Ramanujam spent away from games, he actually managed to miss an entire cycle of new controllers. The Nintendo Wii became the most popular video game console, inspiring Sony and Microsoft to invest in the PlayStation Move and Kinect motion controllers, both of which have been all but abandoned. Depending on Ramanujam's familiarity with 10-button, two joystick, one direction-pad controllers, games are as easy or difficult to use as they were in 2007.

Like Ramanujam mentioned, online multiplayer has become, almost paradoxically, a massive part of single-player game design. In his time away from games, publishers stopped trying to outright copy the ultra successful massively-multiplayer online game World of Warcraft. Instead, game makers took what made that multiplayer game successful — constant updates and changes, a stream of communal activities, dopamine-releasing in-game rewards — then grafted these features onto what were then single-player experiences. Games like Borderlands gave way to Destiny, which has inspired this month's release of Tom Clancy's The Division, one of the many similar Tom Clancy games — later this year, we may see the release of Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Wildlands, another open-world game that blurs single-player and multiplayer shooters.

And oh my golly, I made it this far, and haven't explicitly answered your questions, Ramanujam. I am sorry! Here we go:

The video game single-player campaign isn't dead; it's supplemented. Games like Destiny and GTA Online build upon single-player experiences, but multiplayer features as you describe them are optional — you can play Destiny without friends, and Grand Theft Auto 5 is itself a single-player-only experience.

However, many big-budget games blur the line between single-player and multiplayer, and soon, I expect most AAA games will have some component that loops real people into worlds formerly populated by artificial intelligence. Racing video games like the Need for Speed series and Forza have popularized asynchronous play, allowing you to compete against friends even when they're not available. I expect we'll see that idea flourish in strange and awesome ways in the next decade.

You have more choice than ever before

But what you might enjoy more, today, as a fan of single-player games of 2007, are the more reasonably priced indie experiences. There are hundreds to choose from. Last week I wrote about Superhot, a wildly creative shooter that doesn't require a headset, a friends list, or an understanding of a complex loot farming technique.

You have more choice than ever before, and that's both a burden and a boon. In 2007, games were relatively predictable in nature, following proven strategies and patterns, each game building ever-so-slightly off the last. But in 2016, even big-budget games take risks, sacrificing one corner of the market to be especially appealing to another. The notoriously difficult Dark Souls games, multiplayer-focused strategic shooters like Team Fortress 2, and the Skylanders series, have become colossal hits by not trying to be everything for everyone. Indie games in particular have brought more diverse voices and ideas to video games, documented with astounding dedication by sites like Critical Distance.

It's an amazing time to play video games. So much has happened in 10 years that I take it for granted. That change can feel overwhelming and exclusionary, but ultimately, more people are playing more games made by a wider variety of talent.

Thanks for reminding me, Ramanujam. I think you'll like playing games again. From here, I recommend you download a few random things from Itch.io, watch some games on Twitch, and play the new Assassin's Creed — it's called Syndicate, and is actually pretty good!

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